Sunday, January 18, 2009

Travel and Dance as Religion in Commercial Culture

In his essay Travel and Dance, Siegfried Kracauer examines the mechanical nature of commercial culture and social abnormalities that result from it. Two examples are travel and dance. In his view, commercial culture has abridged dance to a simple sequence of timed steps and travel to a plain experience of changing place. Both travel and dance are subject to fashion. A new tempo or a new destination is decreed according to the dictates of this peculiar specter and obligingly followed by trend-setting society.

He believes fashion to be the fundamental force powering the commercial machine that is the basis of capitalist culture. Fashion erodes the value of things by subjecting their image to periodic change. Such change is not relative to the efficiency of the things themselves but instead is an impulsive caprice that defaces the world with unnecessary obsolescence. Yet, fashion does show the intimate connectedness that can be established between people and commodities.

Fashion is the agent of the commercial process that now rules us. Kracauer argues that a depraved profit and loss mechanization has prevailed against our humanness. Our cultural processes have been constricted by the assumption that the world can actually be understood according to mechanistic presuppositions. The cultural thought leaders rationalize all aspects of life to accommodate it to technology and mechanization. Mankind must be made malleable enough to fit into this commercial worldview.

By placing such artificial limitations on what is acceptable in society, mechanical men are actually sacrificing intellect, and unnaturally restricting its consideration of anything beyond their carefully restricted models. The more they embed themselves exclusively in these models, the more they disintegrate into a series of formulaic and meaningless activities. They have become henchmen of "intellectual" excess, becoming not masters of the machine but merely machine like.

Travel and dance have an exaggerated purpose in such a culture. Kracauer observes, “[that] the goal of travel is not its destination but rather a new place as such.” There is no longer a search for the soul of another place but just a look at the foreignness of its face. Travel is a pure sensation of space, being somewhere other than where one is now.

Dance has similarly been evacuated of meaning, reduced to the marking of time. The ceremoniousness of old dance had meaning, pleasant flirtation or a tender and sensuous encounter but this has deteriorated in modern dance to a representation of “rhythm as such. Instead of expressing specific ideas in time, its actual content is time itself.” Modern music, no matter its self-promoted vitality, is nothing more than syncopation. Having only rhythm as a goal is inauthentic, and through dance alone one cannot obtain an authentic experience such as Eros. Travel and dance are no longer phenomena that unfold in space and time but instead are associated simply with the transformation of space and time.

Because mechanical men confine themselves to the spatial-temporal view of their restricted world, they are granted access to a “beyond” only through changes in space or time. Dance and travel are a substitute for the sphere they have denied themselves. They must intermittently live in one place and then another. They must move at one pace, then another. Kracauer says that “Travel and Dance have taken on a theological significance” for them.

Still, even mechanical men are aware of the inauthenticity of their mechanical limitedness. The need for redemption is as passionate for them as for real people. Their addiction to change in time or place is their surrogate redemption. Spatially they cannot be here and there but rather they are first here and then somewhere else that is also here. They are only redeemed to that which they vainly try to escape.

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